What You Really Told Me When You Said Retard

Language is powerful.  What we say and how we say it has impact. I love someone with a disability.  I know how language can be respectful and uplifting and how it can degrade and demean.  I have done my research and made evidence-based arguments.  I should be able to discuss this calmly with you.  I shouldn’t be afraid to speak up.  I know I’m right.  But I also know this conversation can be a wedge.  It can make people feel embarrassed and uncomfortable – defensive even. I don’t want to make people feel ashamed and I don’t want an apology.  I know you mean well and have probably never thought about it before.  I’m not judging you, but I want you to understand how the words you choose matter to me and to Evelyn and other families like ours.

When you say, “I felt like a retard!” or “That movie was so retarded!” it hurts me.  Do you know what that word means?  That word was a medical diagnosis.  Twenty years ago, Evelyn’s medical file would have read “mentally retarded.”  And that would have been okay.  Because what that word used to mean is “cognitively impaired.”  Evelyn has cognitive impairment – it’s a fact.  But now, doctors don’t use that term anymore.  Because people started saying it like it was a foul word.  Like you just did.  It’s an insult.  It’s derogatory language.  Retard has been reappropriated in the worst kind of way.

Mommy EvieMade a stupid choice?  You’re a retard.  Something is ridiculous?  It’s retarded.  The insult is being like my daughter.  Think for a minute what that feels like to me.  When you say it, I never see it coming.  It’s like an unexpected slap in the face.  I feel my cheeks get hot.  I want the ground to open up and swallow me, because you think that being like my daughter is terrible.  You said it to demean someone or something.  I think about what it will feel like to Evelyn when she is old enough to understand that you choose to express your contempt and disrespect for someone or something by comparing it to her and my heart breaks for her.  I want to explain this to you, but I don’t know how.

If I do work up the nerve to say this to you, you might get defensive.  You might justify it by saying, you would never call someone with a disability retarded – you didn’t mean it that way.  But that is what that word means.  I mean, just because you say “duck” doesn’t mean duck anymore, that doesn’t change the fact that it does. It doesn’t stop you from thinking of a duck when somebody says it. Try saying her name.  Try putting Evelyn’s name in place of the word retard.  Say, “That’s so Evelyn!” when someone really screws up.   Do you get it now?

If you’re still not sure, you can visit r-word.org and find lots of personal stories about how the r-word affects people. After that, if you still don’t understand, it doesn’t really matter.  Because if you believe in respecting people and their feelings, it should be enough for you to know that it hurts, even if you don’t get why.  It should be enough to choose a different word.  It should be enough to make you buy a thesaurus. Just stop saying it!  I never want my daughter to hear it.

The R-word

Many Americans take the right to express themselves freely for granted, often choosing words carelessly.  While the many interpretations and nuances of the spoken word allow it to be beautiful and artistic, they also make it offensive and hurtful when used recklessly.  Language is both powerful and constantly evolving.  In modern slang, the word “retard(ed)” has come to mean silly, ridiculous, stupid, and not worthwhile.  What was once a medical term has become a shameful insult used to belittle others and their ideas.  “Retard” is a poor substitute for more accurate and specific words, and civilized, conscientious people should choose to remove it from their personal lexicon.

Historically, countless words originated as harmless common speech and then morphed into derogatory language meant to insult or degrade others.  For centuries, “gay” was a synonym for happy.  It wasn’t until the 1940’s it became an identifier for homosexuals (Harper) and then, more recently, a deprecating slang term with a similar meaning to “retarded.”   Undoubtedly, the most infamous word to follow this linguistic evolution is “nigger”.  It originated from the Spanish word for black, “negro.”  By the early 1800’s it had acquired its derogatory connotation (Kennedy).  Today people noticeably cringe at the sound or sight of this six letter word that represents the most shameful part of American history to date – the systematic persecution of African-Americans, from slavery to modern discrimination.  Similarly, “retard” is rooted in the innocuous medical term “mentally retarded” – a clinical description for intellectual disabilities (Edwards-Tate).  The intellectually disabled population has a history as long and riddled with discrimination and abuse as that of the African-American community. Dating back to ancient civilizations, people with disabilities have been subject to extreme treatment.  While some cultures revered them as being closer to God, most associated the intellectually infirm with evil spirits or being possessed.  In the 1800’s, social Darwinists believed that helping the disabled went against the principles of Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, or “survival of the fittest”  as it is commonly known (Munyi 1-3).  Even in a civilized democracy such as America, eugenics campaigns advocated for the forced sterilization of “undesirables” – including people with disabilities – into the late twentieth century (Gerson).  For centuries, Americans with disabilities were treated exactly like animals: housed in institutions for the feeble-minded that were no better than animal shelters, never offered education, independence, respect or safety, and denied the basic rights guaranteed to all people under the United States Constitution (“Lives Worth Living”).  The conditions in these facilities were so deplorable they prompted Senator Robert Kennedy to condemn them, “…[W]e have a situation that borders on a snake pit … [t]he children live in filth … [M]any of our fellow citizens are suffering tremendously because lack of attention, lack of imagination, lack of adequate manpower. There is very little future for these children – for those who are in these institutions” (“Lives Worth Living”). This terrible history echoes through every utterance of “retard”.   Civilized people should be offended by “retard” because it carries with it a long, negative history of degradation and cruelty similar to “nigger”.

Certainly, when used to refer to a person with an intellectual disability, “retard” is dehumanizing.  By naming a person for his disability, it defines him as only the disability and takes away all other qualities.  He ceases being a person and becomes only a “retard.”  Recognizing this connotation, Congress passed “Rosa’s Law” in 2010, which changed all instances of “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability.” (“S. 2781–111th Congress: Rosa’s Law”).

Undoubtedly, when used to refer to someone without a disability, “retard” is meant to demean its victim by equating him to someone with an intellectual disability. Linguistics scholar Benjamin Lee Whorf believed the genuine meaning of a word is truly found in the effect it has on the receiver.  It is realistically defined by the feelings and images it produces in its audience (Dajani 2).  Therefore, associating the word with unwise or unfavorable traits or actions is to associate the disabled with those same traits or actions.  This is much like the offensive term “bitch” which can be used to disparage a man for being like a woman (Harper).  This meaning still degrades women by implying they are inferior, even though it is not directed at a woman.  Even when “retard” is not directed at a person with an intellectual disability it still debases them.

Additionally, one must consider the impact the pejorative “retard” has on those who have an intellectual disability.  John Franklin Stephens has Down syndrome, one of the most common intellectual disabilities in the United States (“Intellectual Disability”).  He is also a Global Ambassador for Special Olympics who spends his days representing other people with disabilities.  In his essay “Using the Word ‘Retard’ to Describe Me Hurts,” Stephens explains how it feels:

“So, what’s wrong with ‘retard’? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be … We are someone that is not your kind.”

People with intellectual disabilities understand that they are different than typically developing peers, but it is important to remember that the similarities between the two far outnumber the differences.  When their social peers choose to use “retard,” it shows an absence of understanding and respect.  This lack of consideration illustrates the exile imparted upon them for that singular difference.

Not often considered, this empathic deficiency also reflects poorly on the speaker.  Those who use “retard” casually to insult others do have a prejudice, even if they are not conscious of it, and this is conveyed in their choice of the word.  In her thoughtcatalog.com article, “Why Are We Still Saying Retarded?”, Nora Johnsmeyer (a blogger who has a sister with Down syndrome)  asks society to reflect on their true intentions:

 “Think about what you mean when you call someone ‘retarded … on some level … you probably use it to be offensive. You probably meant to hurt the person you’re describing, but did you mean to perpetuate a negative stereotype? Engage in hate speech?”

Timothy Shriver, chairman and chief executive for Special Olympics shares in his online editorial for The Washington Post that more than half of Americans don’t believe that children with intellectual disabilities should be educated in the same schools as their own children.  This is a startling concept, considering multiple international and federal mandates guaranteeing the basic human right of access to education for all people and broad support for the idea that inclusive education is beneficial to both students with disabilities and typical children (“Stat. 2647 Public Law 108-446 108th Congress,” Munyi 5-7).  Similar to racial segregation, this propensity for exclusion is a clear indicator that people with disabilities are still not considered an equal part of modern society.  When a person chooses “retard(ed)” over a variety of more specific and accurate terms, it needlessly reinforces these stereotypes in themselves and others.

There are some arguments against the removal of “retard” from polite vernacular. As mentioned previously, there are strong correlations between the word and other offensive words, particularly “nigger.”  Some of these words have been reappropriated for use by their original victims.  One can draw the conclusion that perhaps the natural order is for “retard” to be assigned a new connotation in the same manner as “nigger” has been by some members of the African-American community.  However, the mere fact that reappropriation exists does not justify its practice.  While the reappropriator may feel empowered by reclaiming the word from its transgressors, in actuality, it is a false power.  Regardless of their belief or intention, every utterance of the word still carries the weighty burden of hate.  To use the offending word casually is to minimize this hate and the hurtful history associated with it.  The reappropriator is, in essence, sending the message that he, himself, believes this history, one that is personal to him and those like him, is not relevant.  Additionally, Christopher M. Fairman, a law professor and author, argues even if the specific word in question is eliminated, another will rise in its place and repeat the same evolution, because the prejudices behind the word will still exist.  Be that as it may, society cannot fight one and not the other.  As Author George Orwell wrote in 1946, “’[I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.  A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better’” (qtd. in Dajani 2).  Prejudice is the root of the offensiveness of “retard” and, in turn, the word falsely reinforces prejudice as correct.  The two are inevitably intertwined, and even if elimination begets a new mutation of “retard,” civilized people have a responsibility to carry on with the battle against hate speech.  Fairman also incorrectly argues that the campaign to end “retard(ed)” is a campaign against American’s constitutional rights.  Assuredly, American’s have the guarantee of free speech, and the intention of this essay is not to outlaw “retard.”  On the contrary, the First Amendment grants all Americans the right to choose their own words – this essay simply asks that choice be taken seriously by illuminating the ramifications of using that freedom to select hateful speech.

 Undoubtedly, “retard” is superfluous and holds no honorable or fair meaning.  To the roughly four million Americans with intellectual disabilities (Larsen 1), it is offensive and hurtful.  Its use as a slang word is tactless and cruel and “retard’s” intended meaning can better be expressed through more succinct speech:  absurd, crazy, dumb, foolish, ludicrous, ridiculous, silly, stupid, idiotic, illogical, insignificant, irrational, irrelevant, unimaginative, unnecessary, useless, and worthless all more accurately express meaning.    While individuals should retain the right to free expression, thoughtful, respectful individuals should choose to stop saying “retard” entirely.

Photo Credit: Military Special Needs Network
Photo Credit: Military Special Needs Network

Dajani, Karen Finlon. “Other Research – What’s in a Name? Terms Used to Refer to People With Disabilities.” Disability Studies Quarterly 21.3 (2001). Web. 7 Dec. 2012.

Edwards-Tate, Laurie. “Watch your language: Stop using the R-Word.” Letter. The Washington Times 5 Mar. 2012. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.

Fairman, Christopher M. “The case against banning the word ‘retard’.” Editorial. The Washington Post 14 Feb. 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.

Gerson, Michael. “Defending the word ‘retard’ is not heroic.” Editorial. The Washington Post 14 Feb. 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.

Harper, Douglas. “The Online Etymology Dictionary.” Etymonline.com 2001-2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.

Johnsmeyer, Nora. “Why Are We Still Saying Retarded?” Thought Catalog 9 Mar. 2012. Web.  1 Dec. 2012.

Kennedy, Randall. “A Note on the Word ‘Nigger’.” Toward Racial Equality: Harper’s Weekly Reports on Black America 1857-1874 1998-2000. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.

Larsen, Sheryl, Charlie Lakin, Lynda Anderson, Nohoon Kwak, and Jeoung Hak Lee. “Prevalence of Mental Retardation and/or Developmental Disabilities: Analysis of the 1994/1995 NHIS-D.” MR/DD Data Brief 2.1 (2000): 1. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.

“Lives Worth Living.” Dir. Eric Neudel. Independent Lens. PBS. WGVU, 27 Nov. 2011. Television. 27 Nov. 2011.

Munyi, Chomba Wa. “Past And Present Perceptions Towards Disability: A Historical Perspective.” Disability Studies Quarterly 32.2 (Summer 2012). Web. 1 Dec. 2012.

 “S. 2781–111th Congress: Rosa’s Law.” GovTrack.us (database of federal legislation) 2009. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.

Shriver, Timohty. “The bigotry behind the word ‘retard’.” Editorial. The Washington Post 15 Feb. 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.

“Stat. 2647 Public Law 108-446 108th Congress.” ED.gov. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.

Stephens, John Franklin. “Using the word ‘retard’ to describe me hurts.” Editorial. The Denver Post 1 Nov. 2008. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.